The world’s a stage for jazz-singing, comedienne barrister Sheila Aly
Ever since she enjoyed winning arguments in the school playground, Sheila Aly has wanted to be a barrister. It wasn’t just for the thrill of countering playground bullies with choice words, she has long had a strong belief in standing up for other people. As Sheila puts it: “Being a barrister offered the chance for me, a woman with the gift of the gab and the ability to defend the needy, to help people who did not know how to speak for themselves.” She has certainly achieved that aim, as a successful employment and family law barrister with a thriving direct access practice.
There was also another motivation to enter a profession that involved speaking in public – as a method of overcoming the fact that, as youngster, Sheila was painfully shy. In fact, she has developed a love of performing that extends to singing, acting and stand-up comedy.
After studying law at the Queen Mary University of London, Sheila secured pupillage at Littleton Chambers, where her pupil master was Michael Duggan (now Michael Duggan QC), who drilled her in the need for excellence and “helped make me a good practitioner”.
She was called to the Bar in 2002, then obtained a tenancy at Phoenix Chambers (which no longer exists) and developed her practice, but a changing economic environment and changes at the Chambers caused her to seek greater security in paid employment. She joined Citation Plc in June 2008 as an in-house barrister dealing with Employment Tribunal claims.
That suited Sheila for three years, but she missed the independence of freelance work and returned to the Bar in 2011, joining Warwick House Chambers. She broadened her practice to include family law, partly encouraged by the fact that she had by then trained to be a coach and mediator.
As someone who has always jumped at opportunities that presented themselves, Sheila was also quick off the mark when direct access was introduced. Becoming direct access-qualified soon after she passed the three-year post-qualification period, she has since built up a healthy direct access practice.
Direct access, with the need to deal directly with clients, fits well with her overall philosophy, as Sheila explains. “I like dealing with people not just in a professional capacity, but in all aspects of my life. That made the transition to dealing directly with clients, as well as having clerks, pretty seamless for me.”
So, what makes for a good direct access barrister? “Taking the time, really taking the time to listen to clients’ concerns and issues,” she continues. “I am a good listener, and have developed a set of skills to help steer clients in the right direction which, in turn, helps identify the key problems on which they need my assistance. On top of that, you have to very responsive to leads that come your way; in this day of instant communications, people expect quick answers. But that does not mean you have to be at their beck and call – direct access also involves good management of expectations.”
Life outside the law
Being a barrister is just one of many activities in Sheila’s life. She has broadcast on hospital, local and commercial radio stations, sung with a jazz band (her idols being Ella Fitzgerald and Aretha Franklin), done stand-up comedy and now runs a monthly gathering called Inspire’d (the apostrophe helps with Google searches) in which people can talk for 10 minutes on any subject they choose “to share their wisdom”. Sheila says: “It is an antidote to small talk, where people talk about life’s big questions, sharing stories and emotions and connecting people.” She also acts as a mentor and coach and has written motivational books.